Friday, August 10, 2012

Oh fuck -- I've joined Second Life again.

You know that I used to be a heavy player of the "gameless" virtual world Second Life, right? What, you didn't know that? Well, that's a shame! Because for about a year there in the mid-2000s -- fall 2006 to fall 2007, specifically -- SL was one of the main things going on in my life, taken up literally days after The Great Fucking Startup Disaster of 2006 (in which I was going to use the profits from my new high-tech job to start up my arts center, CCLaP, then got screwed out of the thousands of dollars I was owed), done essentially as a mental diversion while I fumed and fumed over the dual massive failures I had just gone through. I played an "omnisexual" character named Miller Copeland, a shapeshifter who could morph between male and female forms at will; that's Miller in her female form you're seeing above, the gender I mostly played since being a cute pixie-like girl in SL is a lot more fun than being a male, in some of the many amazing outfits I ended up picking up for her over the months.

And that's really the first big thing to understand about SL, to understand both that environment and why I've recently chosen to go back to it; that since there's no proscribed "game play" there like you'd see in, say, World of Warcraft, people just make up their own things to do whenever they're in-game, and with Linden Labs (owners and puppetmasters of SL) providing an unusually robust system for creating your own clothing, buildings, vehicles and just about anything else you can mention, as well as an extremely simple-to-use virtual currency system that can be "cashed out" every so often for very real money that you can actually spend in the real world. So for example, single pieces you see above like t-shirts, jeans, arm tattoos and bracelets might cost an American quarter or so to purchase, from one of the thousands of digital entrepreneurs you'll find in SL, while something like that blue alien full-body skin might cost two dollars, while something like that elaborate black dress or the erotic elf costume might cost five bucks. And so that's how a lot of people in SL are making a surprisingly big chunk of spending change there per month, by constantly creating new content, amassing a catalog of hundreds of items, opening a retail store within this virtual city (for those who don't know, SL in 2012 is now roughly the size and population of Seattle), and doing all the normal things that a traditional small business would, like maintaining a mailing list, holding sales, sponsoring fashion shows, etc etc.

I just happened to join SL in 2006 right when the first big wave of national publicity hit it as well (it made the cover of Newsweek in the months I was playing it); and so the blog I was doing about all the interesting artistic, entrepreneurial and sexual things that were going on there, In The Grid, blew up at the same time, and at a certain point was within the top ten most popular Second Life blogs on the entire planet. But alas, at the same time Linden was constantly in the process of adding more and more code and more and more graphic details to this virtual world, which is what eventually both drove me away and stopped the national fawning; because by the time I left, it was nearly impossible for anyone besides 17-year-old boys with Alienware gamer setups to have a truly immersive, truly real-time experience in SL, which none of them wanted to do because of the correct perception that SL is a "videogame for your freaking mom," and which eventually pushed away all the middle-aged casual gamers like me with non-souped-up computers who were generating all the national publicity in the first place. And in fact this problem got so bad that even the founder of Second Life and CEO of Linden Labs, Philip Rosedale, left his own company soon after I quit myself, although to be fair that's probably more because he's a serial entrepreneur and always likes working on cutting-edge projects. (Before Second Life, he had been a senior executive at RealPlayer in the '90s, and was one of the people who helped stabilize the MP3 format; he's now the founder of Coffee And Power, a website/physical hybrid in which people advertise for small jobs with small pay like proofreading and light construction work, with regulars encouraged to hang out at a specific associated coffeehouse in their city to better be able to pounce on these micro-job offers when they come in.) And besides, this was now happening a full year after my failed attempt to open my arts center, and I was finally feeling emotionally recovered from that; so in fall 2007, I quit Second Life for good and started devoting all my spare time to the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, which has been growing by leaps and bounds ever since.

Recently, though, I purchased a new bottom-of-the-line laptop so I could finally start going to neighborhood cafes and getting a good internet signal (my one at home is through Virgin Mobile and doesn't work for shit); and while Second Life still remains as processor-heavy as it always has, the processors themselves have gotten remarkably more powerful since 2006 when I was last logged in, with even my cheap little $300 "mom laptop" still having four times the data-crunching power as the Mac Mini I was originally using for SL back in 2006. And so spurred by my Chicago friend Jim, who is still to this day making several hundred dollars a month in SL (yes, real spendable American dollars) on flyable steampunk spaceships he designs, I've joined up again! Although let's make no mistake -- I'm not there anymore to socialize or sightsee or write a blog or attend sex-club parties, all of which are still as laggy to do as they were when I first quit in 2007; I'm there very specifically to make another go at Fabb, the prefabricated housing company I first tried opening back when I was first there, which I was just never able to make a go of because I literally didn't have the computing power even to finish the houses themselves. But I got close, though, which is why I've still been thinking about it ever since; for example, above see the screenshots of "Asimov," the very first house I designed there, which back in 2006 would sell for around ten to fifteen American dollars. (I'm going to have to shop around soon and see what the going rates are anymore for such prefab housing. And by the way, note that this doesn't include the furniture you're seeing in these photos; in fact, that's a big part of the "fun" for a lot of SLers, is simply the shopping and interior decorating of their home. For those who are confused, you can think of a person's home in SL as kind of like their profile in Facebook; it's where you start every time you log in, a place you can customize to show off your unique personality, where you can invite friends to gather when you want to have a chat session with them, and where you can have information from all your other friends flowing in if you want.)

Or for another example, check out "Ion," the second house I designed, about half the size of "Asimov" and that would sell for no more than five bucks, perfect for a "starter plot" of 512 square meters. (For those who don't know, one physical server in the Second Life system covers what's called an "island" of 32,000 square meters, or one square on the SL big map; you can own one yourself for a one-time fee of a thousand dollars, plus another $4,000 per year in server maintenance fees. This large standard unit, then, keeps getting split into smaller and smaller parcels depending on what an individual person wants; the smallest unit available is 512 square meters, exactly 1/64th of an island, which is given to a person for free as a perk for becoming a premium member, and with the maintenance fee waived if all you own is this starter plot. [If you later choose to purchase a plot somewhere else in the universe that's twice the size, for example, you start paying $8 per month in "land fees;" add together 64 of these $8 monthly payments, and that equals the $4,000 per year a person would pay to own an entire 64-plot island unto themselves...which, by the way, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people do.]) There is a very real market within Second Life for stuff like this -- they have something like three million members now, after all, who spend on average something like a hundred bucks a year just on in-game content like houses, vehicles and clothing -- and given that it only takes me about a week to kick out a new house like the ones you're seeing above, which can then be easily converted into five or six different actual things for sale once you change up the colors and textures of the walls and floors, it simply makes sense to have another go at the whole Fabb business, now that I have the means again to do so. Like I said, my friend Jim makes a couple of hundred dollars a month while now spending only maybe five to ten hours a week in-game, so there isn't a single reason why I couldn't be making the same amount with my prefab housing, if I would simply get my shit together and get serious about all the crappy little summing-up details of such a business, not just making the houses but bundling them up, getting a merchant system in place, adding the right animation scripts for opening and closing doors, etc etc etc.

Anyway, I've decided to make a completely clean break from my time there before; so say hello to Zad Cornell, my new in-game avatar who I just created yesterday, and whose look will be getting profoundly changed over the next several weeks. (Once again, Zad will be a dual-gender shapeshifter, although I imagine once again that I will spend a good 90 percent of my time there in the guise of a cute little punk-rock girl.) I literally joined only yesterday, so the only things I've been able to do so far is get my premium membership set up ($6 a month, for those who are curious) and to stake out my starter plot of land. But, I've already noticed, there's a big change between 2006 and now on how this actually works; because now when you get your starter plot, you're only allowed to pick between five different types of terrain (flat, woods, mountains, etc) and something like three or four types of houses for each terrain, and once that's established you're no longer allowed to change the terraforming, or erase or modify your house, Linden now basically maintaining an entire "suburban continent" (see the screenshot of the big map above) that might be called "The Land That IKEA Built." And I have to say, as bland as that might seem, this is a huge improvement over how it used to work before; because I will take IKEAland any day over an entire landscape of casinos and 50-foot-high neon-green penises, which is what these vast fields of starter plots used to look like back when I was originally there in 2006. You're still allowed to add things to your starter plot like furniture and wall hangings, which is all that most beginning players want to do anyway; but if you want to demolish your house and build another, you now have to go and actually buy a plot on the mainland, away from "Newbieville" or whatever you want to call this suburban continent, which I think was really smart of Linden to do. (Also smart -- as you can see in the above photos, these starter plots are no longer stacked up directly against each other like a grid, but instead have these little irregularly shaped triangles of blank land that allow "breathing space" between each plot, owned by Linden and not individual players so that no development can take place on them. As you can see, my starter home basically fills up my entire rectangular 512 square meters of land; so when these were being originally laid out in a grid fashion like when I was there before, often you would get these "suburban ghettos" where one building would literally bump up against its neighbor, and the neighbor after that, and the neighbor after that.)

Anyway, the goal for now is to get up and running on a minimal professional basis as quickly as I can; so I'm basically dedicating my evenings for the next week or so simply to doing some shopping, getting myself some decent skin and hair, a few outfits that won't embarrass me, and a decently sized piece of land so I can start building. Oh, and that's another big difference I've already noticed between SL 2006 and 2012, is that the land boom that was taking place when SL first got massively popular has now completely crashed and burned; even just looking around a little yesterday, I saw that plots that would've usually gone for a hundred dollars back then are now going for only ten, although of course don't forget that your real expense is that land-usage fee you're paying Linden every month, which hasn't changed since 2006. So if I get a plot of around 2,000 square feet to serve as my workshop and retail space, that'll be a monthly "property tax" of $15, which combined with my $6 per month to be a premium member will be basically $21 a month I'll be shelling out to Linden simply to exist; and so that's a minimum of $21 per month I need to be making from Fabb sales, in order to not be a big fucking moron who didn't learn his lesson the first time he was here. How long before I'm making "Not A Moron Money?" We'll see, I guess!

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